Mad Men: The Masked Ball

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Photo: Carin Baer / AMC

Last week set up the third season's third act: The Brits hung a "For Sale" sign on Sterling Cooper. Miss Farrell introduced her strange brother. Uneducated Peggy blew Ivy-League Kinsey out of the water. And Betty finally opened Don's desk drawer. In this week's fantastically tense episode, it's Halloween and the masks come off.

Who's not in this episode? Most notably, Duck: The longer he disappears for, the harder it is to imagine that he's not involved in the imminent sale of Sterling Cooper.

Who's back? Joan! Like every other character on this episode, she's playing a role. Masking her reservations with proper decorum, she's the picture-perfect image of a supportive wife, confidently coaching the bad doctor through job interviews and bolstering his ego, despite her qualms. When she tells him the key is to "express enthusiasm in a believable way," it sounds a lot like what she might tell herself each morning in the bathroom mirror.

Then the bad doctor flubs the interview and comes home, whining about how hard his life is, telling her that Joan couldn't possibly understand what it's like to plan your whole life for something, and then not get it. Hmmm. Joan — who'd planned much of her life around finding a successful man to support her — finally snaps. She grabs a vase (a symbol of romance shattered) and smashes it over his head. It was the most satisfying bloodshed since the lawn-mower scene.

Then the genius returns with roses, announcing that he's enrolled in the army as a medic. Wonder where they might need those? "Maybe Vietnam, if that's still going on," he says. Uh oh. We've always wondered how Joan could get out of this relationship — will Weiner kill off her hubby in Danang? "Put on your coat, Joanie, we're going out." Joan and the doctor don their costumes and pretend everything's okay.

Will Joan end up with Roger, who works hard to get her a job and tells a colleague, "She's important to me," just before adding: "Jane — she's fine"? Roger has been suffering such a lavish midlife crisis, and tossing out so many quips, that it's been hard to take him seriously this season. This excellent episode seems to recognize that. While we were initially bummed to see yet another new character introduced, in the form of Ms. Annabel Mathis, her arrival makes it so much easier to empathize with Roger, and to imagine that he might, some day, deserve Joan.

Ms. Mathis wants Roger to nostalgically recall their romance in "Paris before the war, eating in cemeteries" as something right out of Casablanca. But Roger is sour enough to know the reality was more like the carcinogenic soot that inspired London Fog’s brand. He rips off her mask: "You got on a plane with a guy who was going to run his your father's dog-food company." We see Roger as a boxer, a lover, a soldier. And though he's been acting like such a child, he seems more adult than ever when he refuses to chase her account, or the woman herself. "You were the one," she tells him. "You weren't," says Roger, who's barked out loads of brilliant retorts this season, but none so convincing as this.

In the 'burbs, Miss Farrell is growing more obsessed with Don, admitting she wants more. They set off for Connecticut, and when Don stops by the house to pick up a few things, all hell breaks loose. Since the premiere, we've wondered how Betty would finally react to Don's secret identity — it seemed like an impossible scene — and now we finally find out. The result is one of the most tense pieces of television we've ever seen. There's pressure from all angles, but no implosion: just a long, slow squeeze, beautifully shot and acted. The setup — Miss Farrell in the car, Don and Betty inside — makes it impossible not to wonder if or when Miss Farrell will step through the door.

After presenting her "compromising evidence," Betty's family lawyer advised her to "at least go home, give it a try" (and if that doesn't work, try to prove adultery). But Betty has grown up, and her clash with Don is much more direct. At first, Don is stunned and in denial; his hand limply falls to the desktop when she asks him to open the drawer. He fumbles with a cigarette, then finally settles down. After years of marriage, Betty's reduced to asking questions like, "What's your name?" and "Do you have another wife?" The interrogation is sharp. When Don attempts to lie a little bit, claiming that he'd divorced Anna Draper "the minute [he] met [her]," she reminds him that the divorce papers were filed just three months before their wedding.

Each question is a kind of drama: What will Don admit? What will he omit? What will he lie about? From then on, he stops lying. "You don't get to ask any questions," she says. When the baby cries, you half-expect him to bolt out the door and run off with Miss Farrell. Instead, Don and Betty end up on their bed. The shot frames the open door, so that you anticipate Sally walking in saying, "Why is Miss Farrell outside?" Don just explains the pictures. When he explains more than he has to about his suicidal brother, Adam, you know he's really attempting to be honest. And Betty says what we've all been speculating: Don wouldn't have left everything at home unless, on some level, he'd wanted to be found out.

The next morning, breakfast time is tense in the Draper household, but nothing has collapsed. Betty has learned her politico's lesson: Essentially powerless, she's going to wait and watch Don writhe on the hook while she figures out what to do. And what does Don do? After all the guts he's shown Betty, he still can't quite break things off with his latest idealized savior, Miss Farrell. Don tells her he can't see her, "not right now." (Does Miss Farrell walk away? Or is this the point at which she goes from spurned lover to stalker or blackmailer, abetted by her brother?)

Tell us what you think, but this was our favorite episode of the season: sharply written, beautifully acted, and almost overwhelming. Thematically, you have to ask: Why does Don have such a wild, gothic backstory? Here's one partial theory: Mad Men has always been obsessed with mirroring and self-perception, and maybe self-delusion. Almost every single character — Betty, Sal, Pete, Joan, Roger, Peggy — is struggling to embody some idealized self-image, and always falling short. Don is at the center of this story because he's the only one who discards his old self and constructs an entirely new one from scratch. "You're a very gifted storyteller," Betty tells him. He's the living promise of advertising, which always says that if you buy this (or that, or another thing), you can be different. Almost all advertising (and especially advertising of this era) promises aspirational change, and whether the result is a happier you, a sexier you — or a more glamorous you, a more powerful you — it's a different you in the end.

Advertising, Don might have told Miss Farrell's epileptic brother, is the crass, free-market promise of free will. If you were destined to be exactly the way you are, you wouldn't need a new car, or shirt, or brand of cigarette. "Change is our lifeblood," David Ogilvy wrote in his "Collection of Ogilvy-isms" at the end of Roger's least favorite book, Confessions of an Advertising Man. Well, think of Don as dog food made from horse meat: There are limits to what you spin, and he's unwilling to change what's in the can. So change his name, dress him up differently, and almost nobody will know the difference. For a while.

"And who are you supposed to be?" the man with the candy asks Don, when his children show up as a hobo and a gypsy. It's a beautiful line — the best symbolic capper to any episode this season — not because it's cute, but because it gets at the idea that Don, having aped so many bits of this and that (a little Tyrone Power, a little Roger Sterling, a little David Ogilvy, and much more), probably can't answer the question at all. He's his most important account, and he's about to lose it.

Two episodes left. What do you think is next?

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